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Brussels, 25 June 2009

Environment: Spain risking fines over failures to comply with nature conservation laws

The European Commission is warning Spain about two breaches of environmental legislation. The first case, which could result in Court action, concerns a failure to assess the environmental impact of open-cast mining in a Natura 2000 conservation area in Castille-León, which is home to a number of threatened species such as brown bears and capercaillie, both of which are protected under European law. The second case concerns a failure to designate and protect a number of natural areas in the Canary Islands, one of the biodiversity hotspots of the EU, home to numerous endemic species found nowhere else in the world.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Our economies and our lifestyles depend on a healthy environment. Natura 2000 – Europe's network of protected areas – is vital for the environmental integrity of our continent, and that integrity must be protected whenever it is at risk. Engineering or construction projects are not per se forbidden in Natura 2000 sites, but assurance has to be provided that they do not negatively affect the integrity of these important areas. I therefore call on Spain to make good these shortcomings as soon as possible."

Open-cast mining and brown bears

Spain is being referred to the Court of Justice for a failure to properly assess the impact of a number of on-going and authorized open cast mines in Castille-Le ón. The coal mines in question are located inside a Natura 2000 site in Laciana valley, near Villablino, Leon, which is home to several critically endangered species including brown bear ( Ursus arctos) and capercaillie ( Tetrao urogallus).

Under Community law, adverse effects on priority species under the Habitats Directive and endangered bird species protected under the Birds Directive must be properly assessed before any work can commence. As the Commission is not satisfied by the quality of the environmental assessments that have been carried out to date, or by Spain's subsequent justifications, the country is being referred to the Court of Justice.

Biodiversity protection in the Canary Islands

The Commission is also sending Spain a second written warning about 174 protected sites in the Canary Islands that have not yet been afforded adequate protection. Under Spanish law, the sites in question, which are parts of the Natura 2000 network, needed to be classified as Special Areas of Conservation by December 2007. Spain claims that such processes are under way, but the Commission maintains that no final date has yet been guaranteed for the designation, and that the appropriate conservation measures are not yet in place.

The case was opened in February together with a similar infringement case against Portugal for the Azores and Madeira, where swift progress has been made.

The Canary Islands are home to a large variety of endemic flora and fauna that are found nowhere else in the world. The islands contain unique ecosystems particular to these volcanic regions, and many of them – including coastal lagoons and laurel forests – are under threat. Despite representing only 0.3% of the EU territory, the region hosts almost 20% of its most important habitat types and 28% of its protected plants, many of them endemic to the islands

Special protection areas and special areas of conservation

Europe's nature is protected by two key pieces of legislation, the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. Under the Birds Directive, Member States are obliged to designate suitable sites as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the conservation of wild birds. The designation of SPAs must be based on objective, verifiable scientific criteria.

Under the Habitats Directive, Member States draw up a list of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) on their territory that can make a significant contribution to preserving Europe's habitat types. Member States then have six years to bring in domestic legislation turning the SCIs into strictly protected Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). Taken together, SCIs, SPAs and SACs form the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, which is the EU's most important instrument for conserving natural habitats and the animal and plant species they contain.

Legal Process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations within a specified period, usually within two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, normally two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general see:

For rulings by the European Court of Justice see:

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